How civic tech groups can contribute to Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge

Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge is officially underway! With $75-million in funding on the table, cities and communities across the country are looking for innovative ways to use data and technology to address challenges facing their residents.

At the same time, Canada’s civic tech movement is growing. In 2016, there were three civic tech community groups in the country; now there’s eight! These groups bring together an incredible range of people — technology and design professionals, public servants, community advocates and organizers, policy analysts and other engaged residents. What unites them is a desire to roll up their sleeves and build cool solutions to local challenges using technology and data. They’re building interactive budget dashboards and deploying sensors that can monitor pedestrian activity in public spaces. In other words, they’re already making their cities smarter!

So, as municipal leaders begin to explore the potential of technology and data, we asked six civic tech organizers across the country what their groups — and the broader civic tech movement — can offer cities looking to compete in the Smart Cities challenge.

Ottawa Civic Tech

BetaCityYEG

Civic Tech Fredericton

Civic Tech Toronto

Civic Tech Waterloo Region

Civic Tech Vancouver


Mike Gifford / Ottawa Civic Tech

“Civic tech communities are a great place to test ideas, educate citizens, and explore data sets.”

What does the term “Smart City” mean to you?

A smart city is one that is better able to meet the needs of its citizens. It doesn’t start with the big multi-nationals, but with citizens and their goals.

A smart city draws on the experience, passions and energy of its citizens to develop policies and programs that leverage design thinking.

A smart city doesn’t compete with other municipalities to offer more tax cuts or perks to big business, but looks to develop solutions that build on open source and open standards to lower the cost of innovation and provide citizens an opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants.

What do you think civic tech groups like yours can offer municipalities looking to compete in the Smart Cities Challenge?

Building a smart city requires an investment in makers. Civic tech communities are networks of people trying to find new ways to collaborate together, and with government. Ottawa’s civic tech community is just over one year old, but is already over 500 members strong. Ottawa Civic Tech is also connected to related movements promoting maker spaces, open data, open source and other forms of collaboration and learning.

Civic tech communities are a great place to test ideas, educate citizens, and explore data sets, and they can also be a kind of early warning system. There are a great many social, political and ethical issues tied to smart cities initiatives. It is critical that municipal governments are able to connect with informed citizens so we can have experts engaged who aren’t looking to directly profit from the chosen solution.

What local issue(s) would you like to see your community address as part of the Smart Cities Challenge?

One of Ottawa’s big challenges is all of its layers of government. In the Capital Region there are at least five layers of government involved (and more if you include services like OC Transpo and the various security/policing forces). A smart city in this context would be built with an API-first approach that allows various jurisdictions to pull meaningful content directly from the servers of other organizations. Much of this would be open to the public so that citizens can also get information from it.

To frame it as a challenge statement, I think we should build APIs that expose information between all National Capital Region government agencies, to enable them to share information more readily and allow for more fluid collaboration with citizens.

Are there any projects being worked on at your civic tech hacknights that could make your city smarter?

Ottawa Civic Tech has had an initial surge of interest around the city’s Open 311 API. This could be a lot greater if there was more support and encouragement from the City of Ottawa. The city could do a great deal to promote civic tech by talking about this in the media and working to build a community interested in working with and leveraging open platforms.


David Rauch / BetaCityYEG (Edmonton)

“I think civic tech leaders should have a seat at the table.”

What does the term “Smart City” mean to you?

Smart City is a marketing term from tech giants like IBM and Cisco that is being co-opted back by cities to mean using technology and meaningful engagement to make cities better places to live. A smart city has one view of a person (all the different services and touch points connect) and a person living in a smart city has an integrated view of their government (they don’t know the difference between roads managed by different agencies or services delivered by different orders of government).

What do you think civic tech groups like yours can offer municipalities looking to compete in the Smart Cities Challenge?

I think civic tech leaders should have a seat at the table of external advisory committees to help develop and validate any Smart Cities Challenge proposal. They can help inform and advocate concerning open source solutions or how community groups could be involved in the co-creation of any smart city ideas being proposed. They can also offer to help pilot smart city tech during the drafting of the proposal, to develop small-scale projects which can test out assumptions about how citizens will interact with tech solutions.

What local issue(s) would you like to see your community address as part of the Smart Cities Challenge?

I’d like to see affordable housing being tackled in a way that is economical, environmentally responsible and integrated with the community. I think there’s a lot of opportunities in that space.

Are there any projects being worked on at your civic tech hacknights that could make your city smarter?

We are working on a bunch of smart city-esque projects like low cost DIY pedestrian counters to evaluate urban design/infrastructure investments, open-source smart city data sharing networks, and open source cross-jurisdictional social benefits tools.


Sandi MacKinnon / Civic Tech Fredericton

“Civic tech groups can help to bridge the gap between municipal government and the needs of the non-profit community.”

What does the term “Smart City” mean to you?

A smart city is one that considers all it citizens when making decisions. This includes its most vulnerable citizens. A smart city would not have hungry people and every citizen would have a safe place to call home. A smart city looks for efficiency in its operations. It creates community within communities with diverse housing options and green spaces. It is walkable and has an effective transportation system. It supports start-ups and fosters an entrepreneurial spirit.

What do you think civic tech groups like yours can offer municipalities looking to compete in the Smart Cities Challenge?

Civic tech groups can help to bridge the gap between municipal government and the needs of the non-profit community by creating and researching solutions that help non-profits be more efficient and targeted in their service delivery. Civic tech can also play an important role in helping our municipal government develop solutions that address real needs in our community.

What local issue(s) would you like to see your community address as part of the Smart Cities Challenge?

There’s lots! Homelessness, providing free bus service to those on social assistance, data-sharing solutions for the non-profit community that enable collaboration with the municipal open data portal, streamlining building regulations and permits for housing initiatives, and building easier ways to engage the community on council priorities and decisions.

Are there any projects being worked on at your civic tech hacknights that could make your city smarter?

Civic Tech Fredericton is working on a river watch app that will enable citizens to get information on the status of flooding of the Saint John River. We are also working on a collaboration tool for our faith-based community to use to share resources and information on the outreach services they provide to those in the circumstance of poverty. This will enable them to share resources and not duplicate services on specific days.


Irene Quarcoo / Civic Tech Toronto

“The Internet of Things is built directly into a [smart] city’s DNA.”

What does the term “Smart City” mean to you?

When I think of a smart city I think of a number of pieces, namely that the Internet of Things is built directly into a city’s DNA, that a city is responsive to and built around the needs of its residents and displays a very people-focused design. And lastly, there’s data. Lots of data!

What do you think civic tech groups like yours can offer municipalities looking to compete in the Smart Cities Challenge?

A lot! Civic tech groups are often design-led and people-focused. They’re also an interesting cross section of the city that understands the link between civic issues and technology, which are the core tenets of the Smart Cities Challenge.

What local issue(s) would you like to see your community address as part of the Smart Cities Challenge?

For a smart city to thrive, everyone needs to have access to technology, so inclusion is key. I’d like to see digital inclusion, in all senses, to be tackled as part of the Smart Cities Challenge pitch.

Are there any projects being worked on at your civic tech hacknights that could make your city smarter?

Quite a few. One of note is BikeSpace, a collaboration between Civic Tech Toronto, Cycle Toronto and the City of Toronto. The project team is building an app that will enable cyclists to inform local officials about where more bicycle parking is needed in Toronto.


Kristina Taylor, Civic Tech Waterloo Region

“Civic tech groups can foster longevity for smart cities projects outside of municipal political cycles.”

What does the term “Smart City” mean to you?

A smart city is responsive. It proactively collects and responds to data about the ways people interact with public spaces, and uses that data to improve the lives of the residents.

What do you think civic tech groups like yours can offer municipalities looking to compete in the Smart Cities Challenge?

Civic tech groups can foster longevity for smart cities projects outside of municipal political cycles. They also help connect municipal officials and other engaged residents to the local tech community and companies working in related areas. Finally, civic tech groups are a great place to test and prototype different projects.

What local issue(s) would you like to see your community address as part of the Smart Cities Challenge?

We’d like to see a Smart Cities Challenge centred around improving mobility and physical human connections, so things like safe infrastructure for biking and walking, or tools to facilitate meeting in public spaces.

Are there any projects being worked on at your civic tech hacknights that could make your city smarter?

Not yet! Bring your project ideas to us!


Leah Bae, Civic Tech Vancouver

“In our communities we’re good at bridging the talent gap between the unlikeliest of parties.”

What does the term “Smart City” mean to you? What does a smart city look like?

A smart city is one that effectively utilizes the resources, data, and talent available to them in 2017 (or beyond!) to inform city-planning and decision-making processes.

What do you think civic tech groups like yours can offer municipalities looking to compete in the Smart Cities Challenge?

Civic Tech Vancouver could connect great technical talent with cities seeking solutions. In our communities we’re good at bridging the talent gap between the unlikeliest of parties (i.e. policy and tech), and we want to share this with municipalities too.

What local issue(s) would you like to see your community address as part of the Smart Cities Challenge?

Some issues we’d love to see our community tackle include strengthening media literacy, and improving technical and operational support for under-served communities and the organizations that work with them.

Are there any projects being worked on at your civic tech hacknights that could make your city smarter?

We’re only two meetups old so we look forward to the projects that will come out of our future meetups!


Code for Canada is developing resources for cities and communities looking to compete in the Smart Cities Challenge. If you’d like to learn more, please contact hello@codefor.ca or subscribe to our newsletter for the latest updates!

The deadline for submissions is April 24, 2018.